(IntPolicyDigest) – The United States and Russia account for 93 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, an amount sufficient to wipe out 100 percent of human civilization. What John F. Kennedy said in his 1961 inaugural address remains true: Man still holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human life.
The United States and Russia must work toward an agreement to continue the arms reductions taking place under New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty). A world with fewer nuclear arms requires the two countries with the greatest numbers of these weapons to lead the way.
New START, signed in 2011, has a 10-year duration. The U.S. and Russia can extend the agreement for a period of no more than five years. Before 2021, the two nations must extend the agreement, agree to something new, or go forward with nothing. The last outcome opens the door to the kind of costly, destabilizing arms races we saw in previous decades. Now is the time to begin thinking about what comes next.
Insisting on American nuclear superiority and calling for a ten-fold increase in the number of weapons is not the way forward. That is the way backward. Shouting about the potential of U.S. firepower will not intimidate our adversaries into submission, it will embolden them to respond in kind. Greater numbers of nuclear weapons increase the likelihood of theft, accidental use, and miscalculation. Human judgement and competence are fallible. The utility of these weapons does not justify the risk of possessing them in their current numbers. We need to reduce nuclear arsenals.
First, a meaningful nuclear arms reduction agreement would establish some trust and pave the way for future cooperation between the United States and Russia. Current tensions between the two countries should not be viewed as a barrier to cooperation, but an opportunity to address a security problem that transcends personality and politics. Leaders from Kennedy to Obama, Khrushchev to Putin have sought cooperation. The same is possible with Presidents Trump and Putin.
Second, nuclear weapons are not suited to the current global threat environment. Many of our adversaries are nonstate actors. Our nuclear arsenal does not deter these foes and is not a tool with which we can address their behavior. Reducing stockpiles is a far more effective way of addressing current threats, because we reduce the likelihood that these weapons will fall into terrorist hands.
Third, to guard against the possibility of nuclear terrorism we must discourage proliferation. Joint arms reductions allow us to do so, while continuing to make progress toward our disarmament commitments. The U.S. and Russia, as signatories of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, agreed to eventually disarm. Good faith efforts toward this end send a signal to the rest of the world that we plan to keep our end of the bargain, and that they should do the same, by not seeking weapons of their own. If we want to discourage proliferation, we must start in our own countries.
It is easy to argue that the U.S. and Russia are at odds and that trust and cooperation are fanciful notions. But the U.S. and Russia have achieved arms reduction agreements even during periods of discord. Cold War tensions were high in the early 1980s when President Reagan first proposed START I to reduce deployed strategic arsenals. Some questioned whether Russia would honor an agreement. It is far better to reach an agreement and focus on enforcement than to discard the idea in the first place. And though we may continue to need some nuclear weapons to deter rogue states like North Korea, we need far fewer than either side currently possesses.
If the U.S. and Russia want another four decades of arms reductions and peace, they must reach an agreement to replace, or at least extend, New START. We should build on the hard-won achievements of previous administrations. We should close the door to a new arms race. President Trump and President Putin should continue on the path of progress set out in decades past, and bring the U.S., Russia, and the world another step closer to greater peace and security.